I was recently talking with some colleagues about effective use of data and was asked if I thought Big Law was actually doing anything with big data or was it more like Bigfoot, a combination of folklore, misidentification, and hoax? The context was not in terms of eDiscovery-type data, but rather internal data and what law firms are doing with it. It's an intriguing question and the ultimate answer is "sort of." First let's get on the same page with some definitions.
The Urban Dictionary defines Big Law as "A collection of huge law firms in major cities (particularly NYC) where thousands of Ivy Leaguers and honor students make six-figure salaries straight out of law school. They usually quit after a couple of years of virtual slavery, but if they stay in the game, they end up running the country." That gets some of the idea across but is a little snarky for my taste. Big Law is simply slang for large law firms. The definition of large can vary by geography and has grown over time. The first law firm I worked for was an AmLaw 100 firm with 250 lawyers and at the time the largest law firm had about 700 lawyers. In today's market where the largest of law firms number some 8,000 or more lawyers, I think it's safe to say that several hundred lawyers still constitutes Big Law.
"Big data" is a term that has been bandied about since the late 1990s when it was first used in a NASA paper. The original definition of "big data" was a term for data sets that were so large or complex that traditional data processing methodologies were inadequate. Under that definition, NASA has big data. Walmart has big data. General Motors has big data.
Dictionary.com defines a Bigfoot as "a very large, hairy, humanoid creature reputed to inhabit wilderness areas of the U.S. and Canada, especially the Pacific Northwest." Elusive and unseen, people doubt its existence. But lest you be a nonbeliever, there are cryptozoologists out there looking for them as we speak.
So in the proposed Venn diagram of these three "bigs," what's at the center? An actual sighting of Big Law firm doing something with big data. Does it exist? First we have to overcome the issue that, by definition, law firms do not have big data. They have access to big data systems like Lexis and Westlaw, but internally, nada. Most law firms track only a minimal amount of data. Data processing amounts to what is minimally required to do general accounting on a time and materials basis. Law firms have small (tiny) data. But as with so many other things, the term "big data" got adopted in the popular lexicon and modified to mean something different from what it used to. Several years ago Forbes ran a great article with twelve definitions of big data. The first several were all variations of the original, but the author, Gil Press, offered up some other interesting definitions. The one that I think applies here is "The merger of Madame Olympe Maxime and Lieutenant Commander Data." No, seriously, the ones that I think apply are, "The new tools helping us find relevant data and analyze its implications" and, "A new attitude by businesses, nonprofits, government agencies, and individuals that combining data from multiple sources could lead to better decisions." Under these modified definitions, I think it can be argued that Big Law could have big data.
So we've got Big Law and big data, but is it like Bigfoot, mythical and unproven? Are law firms doing anything with the data that they have? Many law firms are slowly awakening from the dark ages of data management that simply tracked the billable hour. Some have jolted rudely out of bed by their clients. Some firms continue to hit the snooze button over and over. It's fair to say that many e-billing companies know more about a law firm's finances then the law firms do. Those that have gotten out of bed are looking to actually analyze the data they have. They are looking to fill the gaps and augment that old data with data more useful to business analysis in the year 2016. As firms get more and more into AFAs, they are being forced into a different type of analysis of the data. The future of Big Law data analysis is to using that data to drive decisions.
In many instances the data is there or can be easily captured. There are more and better analysis tools becoming available. The last part of the equation is for firms to get the right people with the right data analysis skills in the processing roles. There are firms doing it, and those that are have a significant advantage over those that are not. Be a Big Law, big data Bigfoot or risk being trampled by a competing Big Law Sasquatch!
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